The last of the summer beer

Hugh Thomas samples looks at the concept of seasonality, and asks whether it always means what we think it means
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The thought came to me when drinking Beavertown’s Heavy Water earlier this year. An imperial stout, and not a bad one either, it featured ‘fresh’ raspberries along with its cacao and vanilla. But this was a beer that came off the canning line in January. Whatever your definition of ‘fresh’ is, where the heck do you get ‘fresh’ raspberries in January? 

“From a farm in Hertfordshire that picks and then immediately freezes them,” Steve Grae, co-founder of Affinity Brew Co tells me. Like Beavertown, Affinity created an imperial stout with raspberries in the middle of winter. “We thaw them before brew day, heat and puree them before adding to the fermenter. The results are always very good.”

Affinity is big on seasonality. Its Calendar Project involves brewing a new beer each month, intended to keep the brewery on its toes by inventing new recipes or revising old ones. What comes to mind at each time of year has inspired every iteration, from ‘May’, a rhubarb fruit tea saison, to ‘July’, an orange and cranberry beer of the same style. 

The thing is, it’s curious that a brewery can place a lot of emphasis on the seasons, but at the same time include ingredients not organically synonymous with the months they’re named after – like rose petals for ‘February’, or elderflower for ‘August’. “Well,” says Steve, “[‘February’] was actually inspired by Valentine’s Day. A Champagne yeast berliner with rose petals seemed like a nice idea, using flavours associated with the time of year as an influence.’

Much like with food, seasonality in beer conveys a sense of place and time

Obviously, there are ways of working with ingredients when they’re not naturally available. But does prolonging their life take away from why you started using them in the first place? “Sometimes dried or frozen is better suited to the process. Fresh is always better, obviously,” says Steve. ‘We’d love to use [fruit] fresh from the bush, but when we’re trying to produce a consistent product year-round, it’s not always possible. A parallel brew experiment in the future, for sure.”

I find it hard to blame them – year-round grapefruit IPAs are far more against the grain. The point is, we spend so much time and effort cooking and eating within the seasons, as we recognise the compelling virtues therein. It’s common to find ‘seasonal menu’ chalked on the A-board of any self-respecting pub, so why isn’t the same emphasis applied to all aspects of food and drink?

Much like with food, seasonality in beer conveys a sense of place and time; the idea that what you’re eating hasn’t travelled far, and is presented in its fullness as nature intended. It’s thought a good chef is more familiar with a product when he or she uses it at its freshest. For the brewer? Similarly: when working with fresh green hops driven in from 30 miles away the day they’re picked, they’re already beginning to lose their flavour and aromatic integrity. Brewers know they only have one chance with them each year. So it’s essential they have a more intimate relationship with these hops – much more so than what’s regularly shipped in, pelleted, from California by the pallet load. 

As I type, workers around the country are stripping hops from their bines. This happens during a narrow window, around this point in September. Faversham has just had its annual hop festival – a recognition of the Kentish town’s traditional celebrations marking the hop harvest, where people dress as giant hops and a local priest blesses the fresh new hop haul. It’s one of those things that contributes to the story of beer: the details in which it is made, and its historical importance to the community. 

If seasonality is a concept largely outdated by technological progression, it’s surprising some of these things still rely on it. Märzen, like the month it’s named after, is brewed in March – as brewing was once banned from April to September – and served at Oktoberfest. Despite certain beer circles putting two fingers up to traditionalism, and quite rightly in most instances, they’ll still honour such customs today. Probably on the basis that, simply, it wouldn’t feel right to drink Märzen in June. 

It would, however, feel very right to drink any other type of lager in June. I don’t know about you, but my lager senses tingle in the summer months – there are few things I’d rather have in front of me on a warm day. But before refrigeration this would have been impossible, as lager could only be made, and therefore drunk, during the colder times of the year. 

Maybe the idylls of seasonality are a little lost given we can now drink almost everything at any time we choose. There’s still the odd rousing reminder, from the Green Hop Beer Fortnight right across Kent, to Beavertown’s rollout of Bloody ‘Ell every February. Maybe, for the time being, the quest for the new, funky, and outlandish hasn’t made us forget the role of the season in affecting what we drink and why we drink it. I just wonder if we should worry that, one day, it will.

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